That’s Men: Listen to and learn from your stomach
I wonder if eating is the most emotionally-laden of our behaviours? And if that is so, aren’t attempts to deal with the obesity issue by making people feel rotten about themselves doomed to fail?
Perhaps hunger is the very first need we express after birth and it is usually met quickly and continuously from then on. As Geneen Roth, who has written extensively on the psychology of eating and dieting, would say, food comes to represent love and comfort and not just an end to hunger.
The emotional and psychological aspect of food and eating can be seen everywhere: sitting in your room and eating three Mars Bars because you feel lonely and unwanted; going to a restaurant with friends where the waiters provide a show of deference; giving a child a sweet because she falls and cuts her knee – it’s all psychological, isn’t it?
All of this, if I may digress just slightly, is why I don’t like porridge: all it does is fill you. That’s it. No excitement (a hot curry from the takeaway), no danger (black pudding, sausages, etc), no comfort (a Magnum Classic), just nutrition. Spare me.
Here’s the thing though: for some people, porridge provides a profoundly satisfying experience. It must be something that happened to them when they were children. Perhaps their grannies fed them with porridge – though, really, grannies, you can do better.
Doomed to failure
All of this is why I posed the question: if you make people who are overweight feel bad about themselves, aren’t you doomed to failure? What do many of us do when we feel bad about ourselves? We reach for food or a drink. Both are fattening and neither solve the problem.
We used to think of fat people as jolly. A thin Santa wouldn’t inspire much confidence. But don’t you think there’s a disapproving clippiness in the tone of doctors who come on the radio to talk about obesity? And, in general, doesn’t the media treat people who are overweight as time bombs waiting to explode and not as people?
How is that supposed to make people feel who are characterised as obese? And what do you expect them to do when they feel that way except eat?
Geneen Roth, whose website is geneenroth.com, and who has written good books on this topic, talks about the pointlessness of reducing our food intake without figuring out and addressing the reasons why we eat too much. To every diet, she points out, there is an equal and opposite binge that comes of treating ourselves harshly without knowing what food means to us emotionally.
A start to working out that meaning is to develop a sense of curiosity about our eating. So instead of “What a pig I am for eating three Mars Bars and two packets of Tayto” you might say “Isn’t it interesting that I ate all that chocolate and crisps when I came home feeling low today? Why is that? Could I have done something else comforting instead?”
And so on. Easy? Not in the least, but it could be an important step on the road to healthier eating.
Another step along the road is to connect with the physical sense of hunger. Your mouth can salivate with a desire for a slice of dark, melting gateaux with, say, dollops of ice cream on top, even when your stomach is full. But your attention isn’t on your stomach – it’s on your salivating mouth.
Ask your stomach
Learning to ask your stomach if it’s hungry can have surprising results. Sometimes it tells you it’s full even when there’s lot’s of food left to eat. Sometimes it tells you it’s hungry when you think it should be satisfied with that bowl of porridge that you had an hour ago. Listen and learn.
God forbid eating should ever cease to be emotional for us – but becoming aware of those emotional links and, especially, tuning in to whether our bellies say they are hungry or not, could help to keep eating a pleasure and not a liability.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.